Michael Gove broke the law when the government handed a £560,000 COVID contract to a business he had “personal connections” with, the High Court has ruled.
Justice O’Farrell found that the Cabinet Office’s contract with PR firm Public First was “unlawful” and “gave rise to apparent bias”.
The ruling follows a joint investigation by openDemocracy and The Guardian, which first revealed the company was run by close allies of Gove and the prime minister’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, last July.
One of Public First’s directors, Rachel Wolf, used to be an adviser to Gove and co-wrote the Conservative Party’s election manifesto in 2019. The firm’s other director is James Frayne, whose work alongside Cummings dates back 20 years and who was also hired by Gove when he was education secretary.
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Emails revealed in court show that both Gove and Number 10 wanted Public First to be given the work, with the firm subsequently handed contracts without competitive tender.
The judge said: “The existence of personal connections between the Defendant (Gove), Mr Cummings and the directors of Public First was a relevant circumstance that might be perceived to compromise their impartiality and independence in the context of a public procurement.”
Last year, the government defended the contract, saying it was awarded under emergency COVID regulations. But the Cabinet Office’s own public records show that some of the work was, in fact, about Brexit.
Today, the High Court found that the government’s version of events “does not stand up to scrutiny” and “the time constraints…did not exonerate the Defendant from conducting the procurement so as to demonstrate a fair and impartial process of selection”.
The judge added: “Failure to consider any other research agency… would lead a fair minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger, that the decision maker was biased.”